Can Bush rebound in 2006?

    President Bush, bruised by months of setbacks, enters the new year hoping to win
    congressional battles over tax cuts and immigration, get rebellious Republicans
    back in step and nurture a new democracy in Iraq — the make-or-break issue of
    his legacy.

    Expect the president to bring in 2006 the same way he ended the old:
    Trumpeting good economic news and talking, reassuringly, about Iraq where
    excitement over a historic ballot has been tempered by growing disenchantment
    with the war and a death toll of U.S. troops that tops 2,160.

    The war in Iraq and sluggish diplomatic efforts to deter the nuclear
    ambitions of Iran and North Korea will continue to dominate foreign policy for
    the president, who plans a trip early in the new year to India.

    At home, Bush will be after the Senate to confirm Samuel Alito to the Supreme
    Court in January. He also wants immigration reform, including a guest worker
    program.’

    Absent from his to-do list is a plan to overhaul the tax code. White House
    advisers say there may be some efforts to simplify it, but a sweeping
    restructuring would need more discussion. Also off the list is revamping Social
    Security, the one-time centerpiece of Bush’s domestic agenda that failed to gain
    traction even though he crisscrossed the country to win support for it.

    White House advisers were candid that next fall’s congressional elections
    will cramp Bush’s legislative efforts.

    “When the president puts out a legislative and executive agenda, we’ll make
    sure we reflect the fact that it’s difficult for Congress to get anything done
    in an election year,” said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president.

    Bartlett said that doesn’t mean the president won’t introduce fresh
    initiatives, which typically are tucked in the State of the Union address,
    tentatively scheduled this year for Jan. 31. But midterm elections often mark
    the last lap of a president’s domestic agenda as lawmakers turn their attention
    to re-election campaigns, and presidents in their sixth year move toward the end
    of their Oval Office stay. Already, 2008 presidential hopefuls are positioning
    themselves on Iraq.

    “I think he’s going to fall back on what he didn’t want to do, what he swore
    he wouldn’t do, but almost all second-term presidents do, which is being in a
    kind of caretaker status,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the
    American Enterprise Institute.

    Right after he was re-elected with just a 3.5 million-vote margin in the
    popular vote, Bush proudly claimed a mandate to pursue an aggressive agenda. “I
    earned capital in the campaign _ political capital _ and now I intend to spend
    it. It is my style,” he said.

    Among successes the White House claims in 2005: A bankruptcy law that made it
    harder for Americans to wipe out their debts, legislation to discourage
    multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits and confirmation of John Roberts as
    chief justice of the United States. Bush also won a free trade pact with six
    Latin American countries. There was a highway bill, at last, to modernize the
    transportation network. He also got major energy legislation _ the first such
    national plan in more than a decade _ although the act does little in the
    near-term to ease gas prices, which topped $3 a gallon after the hurricane.

    The list of setbacks is longer.

    Bartlett said Bush’s biggest disappointments of the year were the withdrawal
    of Harriet Miers, his second pick for the Supreme Court, and the impotent
    federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which tainted his leadership profile and
    exposed the nation’s vulnerability in disaster scenarios.

    “The accusations of racism and things like that is something that touched a
    chord with him,” Bartlett said. “It wasn’t one of the finest moments for our
    government.”

    Meanwhile, the Iraq debate took on new potency at home.

    Despite expected troops reductions this spring, the war will continue to cost
    the U.S. billions. Congressional defense appropriators expect the next war
    package that Bush requests will be between $80 billion and $100 billion. That’s
    on top of $50 billion Congress just approved to support actions in Afghanistan
    and Iraq through Memorial Day.

    As the year ended, the administration lost its bid to open oil drilling in an
    Alaska wildlife refuge. Congress extended the Patriot Act for just a month. The
    European Union was vowing to probe allegations the U.S. has been holding
    suspected terrorists in secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. And the White
    House was forced to accept Sen. John McCain’s demand for tighter restrictions on
    the treatment of foreign detainees,

    “It’s been the least successful year of his presidency,” said Georgetown
    University political scientist Stephen Wayne, suggesting that to turn things
    around, Bush should reach out to Democrats.

    © 2005 The Associated
    Press